The visiting swarm, July 1999

I was working at home in the afternoon when the sky outside the dining room window was filled with insects, and a loud buzzing. I watched them circle around the Forsythia that separates the garden from the street. I couldn't believe how many there were and how much noise they were making.

Bee afraid . .

I realised I didn't really know my bees from my wasps. It had never seemed important to think about it much before, as I'd never had hundreds of them buzzing about a few feet from my (open) windows.

I went upstairs to close the windows. Already a few of them were inside, and I guided them back out again.

While closing the window I looked down to see a man in the street looking rather alarmed. He'd obviously just met them all as he walked past. He looked up and saw me, and looked back at them pointedly, as if indicating to me 'Have you seen those?' - like it was my responsibility or something - 'Keep those bees under control, will you?'

I did feel it was my responsibility: they were at the edge of my garden, after all.

I thought it best to see what happened. After shutting all the windows I stood in the kitchen watching this enormous group of insects milling about only 10ft off the ground and about the same distance from our dining room window. I wondered if I should be worried. (I was, anyway.)

I realised they were starting to congregate on a stump in the middle of the forsythia. (It wasn't meant to be a stump, it was something I'd left rather stumpy after a rather unsuccessful prune.)

The stump was gradually being covered in these insects, as they formed a shape like a rugby ball. I realised they were maybe stopping around for a while. Oh dear.

Phoning the council

It seemed necessary to ring someone. Like anyone else in this situation, my first thought was 'the Council'. I found a number for 'pest control' at the council.

The woman at the council pest control asked me if the swarm was bees or wasps. I said I didn't know. She suggested it was too early for wasps, and that it was probably bees. I didn't know if this was good or bad. I asked what I should do.

In a very calm fashion - because they weren't outside her window - she said that they could deal with it for a fee, but that they would only come along and kill them, as that was all they were equipped to do.

I didn't want to kill them, but I was a bit concerned about just leaving them there. How long would they stay there? I asked.

'Hard to tell' she said. As people so often do in these situations.

Calling in the professionals

She gave me the number of a local beekeeper, who 'might be interested in them'. I couldn't work out from this phrase what the beekeeper might do. The phrase 'interested in' sounded like they'd just want make a note of it. I felt this might not be enough, as the bees continued to congregate on my Forsythia stump like a pulsing, malevolent rugby ball.

I rang the beekeeper's number. I got an answerphone which unfortunately didn't have a recorded message giving full instructions on how to deal with a bee swarm effectively in a few minutes. I left a message, saying I wasn't even sure if it was bees or wasps, but could she ring me back please. Urgently.

Beekeeper to the rescue

A couple of phone calls later, and about an hour before dusk, a beekeeper in full beekeeping kit appeared at our front door. This was rather alarming, as the outfit reminded me of the ones worn when there's a serious chemical/nuclear/biological hazard.

I was of course over-reacting. The lady beekeeper greeted my bee swarm with a heartfelt "Oh, beautiful". I knew she wasn't talking about the Forsythia they were gathered on, which as I said, is badly pruned.

For the next hour or so I watched from the window as the lady beekeeper balanced heroically on our stepladders in the very small space available to her between the plants, knocking off bees into a bowl, and then onto a sheet onto which she'd placed a hive, which they gradually went in to. A few buzzed about in the air around her. 

She worked until it was dark, collecting the bees. When I decided to be a bit less feeble, and ventured to the door to speak to her, she said she hoped to get them all, that they'd be lost without the queen. She didn't want to leave any behind.

Taking the bees to the borage

She told me how the following day they would be 'taking the bees to the borage'. I imagined fields full of blue flowered borage, with her bees busying themselves on it. Some kind of bee nirvana. I didn't want her to leave any behind either, I wanted them all to go to the borage.

Summer swarm 3: To the borage

Summer swarm: 1 | 2 | 3
Borage, summer 2002. Beloved by bees, and I'm rather fond of it too.

Above: Borage, summer 2002. Beloved by bees, and I'm rather fond of it too.

Top left: a bee. Not part of the swarm - I was too scared to take a photo of them.